Several years ago, I was rather surprised when one of my daughter's friend's parents asked me if I could help her with brain surgery in a few weeks' time. She assured me that she was, in fact, a medical doctor and a practicing surgeon and that the request was sincere. We would not be performing amateur neurosurgery on an unsuspecting passer-by as part of a bizarre Southern Californian cult ritual. Rather, she would be trying to help a young woman regain her health by excising a remarkably aggressive tumor lodged deep in her brain. I indicated that two weeks might not be enough time for me to learn how to perform surgery, particularly something as delicate as neurosurgery, as opposed to something coarser, say an appendectomy or a simple amputation. I also reminded her that my doctor title was strictly related to philosophy: "Unless your patient is suffering from the effects of repeated attempts at deconstructing literary texts," I said, "or an inexplicable desire to perform Finnish epic songs while strumming a kantele, I doubt that I can be of much use." But my "colleague" persisted, and explained that she needed me more for my Danish language skills than any alleged ability to decode literary texts or analyze traditional expressions. Having only encountered one other situation where I was sought out for my ability to speak Danish (that involving Kelsey Grammar, a Snickers bar, and a large multinational telecommunications firm), I acquiesced. This opportunity also allowed me to enter something on my shared university calendar that, if encountered by nosy legislators, might finally justify my employment.
The surgery was relatively straightforward from my perspective. The cranium had already been removed by the time I arrived in the operating theater, and no one asked me to close at the end. My task was simple: I was to speak Danish with the very conscious patient, making sure that she recognized pictures on flash cards, could maintain as coherent a conversation as possible while someone rooted about in her brain, and that she did not begin to speak nonsense or make strange noises. The patient was a young woman whose first language was Danish but who had learned English at such an early age that she was considered to be a "true" bilingual. The goal, as my colleague put it, was to avoid "cutting out" her Danish; they had "mapped" her language centers but, because she was bilingual, the fear was that her Danish language did not map to the same area as her English. The neurologist explained that language for this patient could have more than the one center that is common in most monolingual patients. By applying electric currents to various parts of the brain while the patient spoke, my colleague could check the preexisting map and avoid paths toward the lesion that would disrupt possibly fragile language networks. The surgery was a success, the lesion was removed, and, the next day, I had a wrap up conversation with the sedated but grateful patient. Her Danish was fine. My colleague had said she was worried about the odd sounds coming from the woman during surgery, but I assured her that it was standard Danish.
While the patient's linguistic capacities remained intact, the experience brought home to me the very physicality of language and, by extension, memory. Often, in the humanities, we conceive of human expression--language and the expressions that are built around language--in ways that are quite divorced from this physicality. But my experiences during this surgery made it quite clear--as clear as it could possibly be--that language and memory (and, by extension, learning) are, among other things, connected to physiologic structures and the result of neurobiological processes. The pre-surgical preparations and the surgery itself also made absolutely explicit that no two brains are alike (Schumann 2004). Not only does each individual have a brain that has been shaped by their genetic inheritance, but that brain has been further shaped by (and is constantly being shaped by) environmental factors--either inputs through the senses or very real physical changes caused by disease, injury or, in this case, deliberate intervention (Schumann, Crowell, et al. 2004). Several weeks later, at a social gathering, I met my colleague and her husband--also a neurosurgeon--and I began to ask questions about the implications of the physiological structure of the brain and the neurobiological processes linked to language, learning, and memory that might help us understand traditional expression in ways other than those prevalent in the academy. Since I was so flabbergasted by the idea that language exists discretely in a section of the brain so readily identifiable, I wondered if tradition too might be linked to special mechanisms--or even specific sites--in the brain that differentiate tradition from other forms of memory.
In short, the surgery sparked my interest in the neurophysiologic processes of tradition and touched off a series of questions that I will attempt to address, however inadequately, in this short essay. Is there such a thing as "tradition memory"? Do traditions present in neurological terms differently than other types of memory? Does the process of expressing traditions verbally present in a neurologically different manner than what cognitive psychologists label "normal speech"? Is there a neurobiological process behind Hymes's (1975) breakthrough into performance? Can an appreciation of neurobiological processes also help explain the long apprenticeship and subsequent mastery of epic tradition among the singers encountered by Milman Parry and Albert Lord (Lord 1964)? Does one learn and process tradition as language and, if so, is it more akin to native language acquisition or second language acquisition? Or does one learn and process tradition as lived experience? How does one transform lived experience into traditional expression? To what degree is tradition production--acquisition, storage, and, most importantly, retrieval--automated compared to natural native language or other habitual skills? Or is it not an automatic process at all? Is it an automatic process for some people and not an automatic process for others? In other words, to what degree is tradition conditioned by declarative memory and to what extent is it subsumed by procedural memory? Similarly, why are some people so attracted to aspects of a tradition (active participants) that they master it and others do not (von Sydow 1948)? What accounts for the varying levels of skill and attraction that one finds in any community in regards to all of the community's traditions? Speaking more basically, to what extent is tradition conditioned by neurobiology and genetic inheritance, and to what extent is it conditioned by environment? This essay is intended to begin asking these questions about tradition in a most preliminary fashion while appealing to theories of memory, learning, and forgetting. The tentative suggestions put forward here--and I stress tentative--might help us widen our ability to understand how the dialectic tension between individual and tradition that is the fundamental basis for folklore functions not only in society but, quite physically, in individuals who make up those societies (Chesnutt 1999).
Before I speculate briefly on these questions in the context of a small set of folkloric data (a chain transmission of the legend "The Hook" and a network transmission of "The Fifty Dollar Porsche" both by a group of UCLA undergraduates), it seems prudent to provide an overview of current models of memory in the brain and to describe, however briefly, some of the main approaches to memory and tradition. I will conclude with a short overview of Multiple Trace Theory (MTT), a theory that has some significant advantages over the Standard Theory of memory consolidation in the context of understanding variation and stability in tradition, and can perhaps provide some more insight into those small experimental data sets. The two small data sets have significant constraints as suitable test data, and it may well be possible to design more rigorous experiments to test these hypotheses in the future.
Questions of variation and stability in tradition have been quite vexing ones for folklorists, at the same time as those two features have also helped define the bounds of the field itself. Early folklorists often neglected to pay attention to the actual individual tradition participants, positing a superorganic view of tradition that was very far from a view of tradition that could incorporate considerations of individual brain structure and function (Krohn 1926). Even Walter Anderson's (1923) classic theory of "self correction"--a notion that a story would be brought back into line with its traditional form by other tradition participants because of repeated telling of the story and repeated hearings of the story through time--suggests that stories have a life of their own. In its best articulation the "law of self correction" is related to questions of memory and reinforcement--a person who has heard and remembered a story multiple times and from multiple sources is likely to reject external idiosyncrasies in favor of his or her own memories. More recent studies of individual repertoires and world view, such as those of Pentikainen (1978), Siikala (1990), Kaivola-Bregenhoj (1996), Degh (1989; 1995), and Palko and Degh (1995), as well as my own study of nineteenth-century Danish storytellers (Tangherlini 1994a), place far more emphasis on the individual and the complex societies in which he or she lives and participates in traditional practices. Yet, in all of these studies, there is no real discussion of why individuals might have different repertoires. Generally, these studies simply offer the observation that these differences exist and reflect an aspect of an individual's world view (Pentikainen 1978).
A decade or so ago...